On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a mass of people were bunched up together on an L.A. Metro Rail red line train that rumbled underground towards Downtown L.A. from Hollywood. Kids wriggled in strollers, an elderly man played the Los Angeles Times crossword, a couple held hands while clutching their coffee cups, and a sleepy passenger woke up and scurried out of the train car after the conductor announced the station stop. This crowded holiday weekend subway scene— except for the lack of winter coats and umbrellas—looked like any other city where catching the subway to go to work, home, or school is routine.
L.A. is on the road toward a transportation revolution. It’s been a slow start but with a new, well-utilized Expo Rail line extension stretching from Downtown L.A. to the beach and more lines under construction, many of L.A.’s famously car-loving citizens are navigating in new ways. This shift to leaving the car at home—or not buying a car at all—has more benefits than saving money on gas or insurance. A spate of studies show that the way we walk, bike, ride, and move between neighborhoods—and whether we’re able to do it conveniently, affordably and safely—can have profound impacts on both physical and mental health.
Courtney Miller decided to structure her life in L.A. around the ability to use the subway. She chose to live in the walk-able and bike-friendly Los Feliz neighborhood, because it’s a 10-minute walk from a red line station and a 45-minute commute to her job at USC Annenberg where she teaches digital media. “I first moved here in 1995, and like most Angelenos, have spent a significant portion of my life sitting in traffic, which has led to a lot of stress and lower back pain,” she says. “Now, instead, I read or listen to podcasts. I love being on my feet each day.”
Nearly half of Americans do not meet the Surgeon General’s recommendation of more than 30 minutes of daily physical activity. In a 2005 study, “Walking to Public Transit — Steps to Help Meet Physical Activity Recommendations”, researchers at the CDC’s Division of Emergency and Environmental Health Services found that one in three transit riders reach that goal just by walking to and from bus stops or rail stations. Public transportation, compared with driving, can help physically inactive populations, especially low-income and minority groups who are more prone to obesity, reach that daily activity benchmark. A study published in 2010 found that people who used a new light rail system in Charlotte, North Carolina had a -1.18 reduction in their Body Mass Index (BMI) and were 81 percent less likely to become obese, compared to those who didn’t travel using the light rail system.
Health and education leaders in Los Angeles County say there are significant benefits for students who ride the train, too, which is why the Los Angeles County Education Coordinating Council, Metro, school districts, and other organizations collaborated to offer free transit passes for all students pre-kindergarten through college. Graduating from high school and college, they say, is one of the most powerful predictors of health: “Increases in school attendance can have short-and long-term health effects, including lower rates of teen pregnancy, violence, substance abuse, and chronic disease,” a report showed.
Diana Suleimenov, a student at Santa Monica College who has been in L.A. for five months, says the subway passes are welcome. Standing on the platform on her way from Koreatown to Santa Monica recently, the immigrant from Kazakhstan says she wouldn’t want to drive even if she could afford it. “With driving, there’s car insurance and traffic. It’s not very fun,” said the freshman film student, “and I like to walk.”
L.A.’s public health leaders say there are also environmental reasons to nudge more students towards taking the train—fewer cars on the road. If 13,000 more students used public transportation (instead of driving or being driven to school), CO2 emissions could be reduced enough to save the equivalent of 2,280 gallons of gasoline. Fewer emissions can translate into direct health benefits such as reducing incidence of asthma and other respiratory diseases, one report showed.
The political winds are continuing to move the city’s public transportation goals forward. L.A. County voters resoundingly approved Measure M in the November election, which authorizes a ½¢ sales tax that will fund a range of transportation projects, including improving freeway traffic flow, repairing potholes, and expanding rail, subway, and bus systems. The fact that the new rail lines are popular is a good sign the upcoming ones that connect diverse neighborhoods in the city will be, too. The number of monthly boardings on the Expo Light Rail Line swelled to 1.2 million in July 2016, up from 850,000 the year before, after seven more stations opened which link downtown to Santa Monica, according to Metro’s statistics.
While L.A.’s reputation as a car-centric city isn’t going anywhere, that perception seems to be jostled a little with each new passenger that pays a fare and takes a seat. Jack Courbet, a retired tech executive who lives on the wealthier Westside, started taking the Expo Line in August to his weekly tango lessons near downtown. He smiles when he says he leaves his car at home. “It’s easy. I read. It’s relaxing,” Courbet says, “Now with the Metro, you have options. All this walking adds up.”